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What is the difference in meaning between these sentences:

  1. I will complain to our boss against you in the office.
  2. I will complain against you to our boss in the office.
  3. I will complain to our boss in the office against you.
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    We don't say "complain against someone; we say "complain about someone" – BillJ Aug 24 '17 at 12:29
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(Small disclaimer: As pointed out by @BillJ It's more common to complain "about" a person. Complaining against a person can make sense in some instances. I didn't question it for the sake of trying to answer the question. For those interested, complaining about something suggests general discontent directed towards it existing in that way. Complaining against something suggests that you are arguing a point of view. It is uncommon to complain against a person, but possible to complain against that person's actions (or a role that person has).)


The meaning depends on order and punctuation

The base of your sentence is "I will complain". You then have three other pieces of information to add:

  • I will complain to our boss
  • I will complain against you
  • I will complain in the office

One way to include this would be in a list

I will complain. Against you, to our boss, and in the office.

This gives each piece of information as a separate object. It breaks up the flow and isn't desirable. The "next step up" from this is to make it all one sentence:

I will complain against you, to our boss, and in the office.

Here, the inclusion of the Oxford comma makes it so that we now have three seperate list items describing how we will complain. Compare this to without the comma:

I will complain against you, to our boss and in the office.

Now, our sentence base is "I will complain against you", where the first piece of information is included. We now have a list of two items which describe it: "to our boss and in the office". This changes the meaning a little because you are describing how you will complain against the person, not how you will complain in general.

Removing the conjunction changes the meaning

So what happens if we remove the "and"?

I will complain against you, to our boss in the office.

Now, you are making a statement: "I will complain against you" and adding a single detail about it instead of two. This is because "in the office" now describes your boss, not where you will complain. This would be interpreted as "To our boss who is in the office". The comma after "you" is like emphasis in spoken word. It adds a pause when reading that makes the statement "I will complain against you" very clear and adds detail afterwards. Compare this to:

I will complain against you to our boss in the office.

This has the same meaning. If you want to split the sentence into its parts you get: "I will complain [against you] to [our boss in the office]". The difference is that the comma is no longer there to add emphasis to "I will complain against you", making the sentence flow as one.


The effect of order

With the list approach, you can put the details in any order without changing the meaning. In a sentence, not so much.

Whenever you complain, you complain to someone. Of course, you can leave it out and not specify this ("I will complain about this later"), however it is always assumed that the person you plan to complain to is someone in charge of the thing you are complaining about. In your example, you are complaining to your boss.

So, if we change the order around so that "to our boss" is the first detail, we get your other two sentences as possibilities:

I will complain to our boss against you in the office.

I will complain to our boss in the office against you.

Written down, they could have multiple meanings since different elements are not separated. When spoken, we would put pauses in to show where different sections start and end.


Example 1

[I will complain to our boss] against [you in the office].

They don't want you to be in the office. Spoken, you would put a pause after "boss" and place slight emphasis on "you".

I will complain to our boss against you, in the office.

They will complain about you, specifying where they will do it. This is done with a pause after "you".

I will complain to our boss, against you, in the office.

This has the same meaning as the previous but gives the extra detail of "against you" as an aside comment. The sentence without this aside would be "I will complain to our boss in the office" where "in the office" is the location where you will complain.


Example 2

Let's split this into it's parts:

I will complain to our boss in the office, against you.

Your boss is in the office, and you want to complain to them about that person. This might be said with emphasis on "you" if meant as a threatening (and impolite) statement:

I will complain to our boss in the office, against you.

This shows slight aggression or sass against the person. It is impolite and probably not the best course of action to take.

I will complain to our boss [in the office against you].

This is a new one. You are stating that the location is "the office against you", or the office next to you.

I will complain to our boss, in the office, against you.

Here, "in the office" is an aside comment. It no longer describes where your boss is, but describes where you will complain. The sentence without the aside is "I will complain to our boss against you".


So to sum up

It honestly depends on how you say them. The sentences you have given are ambiguous because they lack punctuation and therefore the meaning depends on how it is interpreted. Adding punctuation can change the meaning of the sentence. If these are said out loud, emphasis and pauses change the meaning too.

Taking each sentence as a list, they are identical in meaning since all three details are taken to apply to "I will complain". Otherwise, it's up to interpretation and order.

I hope this helped to spread some light onto the world of punctuation, both written and spoken.


Other examples

Compare the meaning of these sentences:

I will complain against you in the office to our boss

  • I will complain against you, in the office (and) to our boss.
  • I will complain against you [in the office], to our boss.
  • I will complain against [you in the office], to our boss.

I will complain in the office to our boss against you

  • I will complain in the office, to our boss, against you.
  • I will complain in the office, to our boss (who is) against you.
  • I will complain, in the office (and) to our boss, against you.

I will complain in the office against you to our boss

  • I will complain, in the office, against you, to our boss.
  • I will complain in the office, against you (and) to our boss.
  • I will complain [in the office against you] to our boss.
  • 3
    Except that we don't complain "against someone"; we complain "about them". – BillJ Aug 24 '17 at 12:28
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    It's a good idea to point out usage errors to OPs. See here: link – BillJ Aug 24 '17 at 12:34
  • The Google Ngram viewer shows that the collocations are "a complaint against" and "to complain about". So, I am with @BillJ – Rompey Aug 24 '17 at 12:42
  • This has been addressed in the answer and I don't think a small detail such as this should have an effect on how well the answer serves to answer the question or not. By downvoting you say that "this answer is not useful". Your reason for this is that I said "complain against" instead of "complain about" despite the question asking about word order, not useage. – Aric Aug 24 '17 at 12:46

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